What Canada can learn from the UK's Brexit ordeal

  • National Newswatch

The United Kingdom today is facing two seminal events: a referendum to be held on June 23 on whether Britain will remain in the European Union – the official “Brexit” campaign has just begun – and the worst refugee crisis that Europe has seen since World War II.Since 1945, the trend in Europe (and worldwide) has been toward greater international integration.  Now, we face the very real prospect that the EU could shrink for the first time, even as increased levels of migration are putting the continent's institutions – including the border-free Schengen Area – under a great deal of strain.  This, combined with a resurgent Russia, a rising China and a collapsing Middle East, has led many to conclude that the liberal world order on which we have come to rely is slowly falling apart.Over the course of the past few years, these two major foreign policy issues have become fused in the minds of many Britons.  The European refugee/migrant crisis has coincided with a rise in immigration to Britain from other EU countries.  While UK Prime Minister David Cameron recently secured reforms in Brussels that will allow countries experiencing an “exceptional” amount of migration to limit in-work benefits temporarily, this is unlikely to deter people who are attracted by the promise of finding good-paying jobs.As a result, the immigration/migration issue may very well end up becoming the predominant theme in Britain's EU referendum campaign.  Those campaigning for Britain to leave the EU will argue that the UK needs to reclaim control of its borders. Their opponents will trumpet Cameron's reforms and will largely lack the courage to emphasize that cultural diversity is a good thing and that immigration fuels economic growth.The conclusion here is obvious: when economic inequality and political decay set in, a country can become prone to populist politicians and anti-immigrant sentiments.  There are two lessons that Canadians can draw from the instability and insecurity currently gripping the United Kingdom – a phenomenon not unlike what we are seeing unfold in the United States.First, voters desire a clear vision from their leaders – one that strengthens their identity and assures them of their place in the world.  The post-Cold War era has seen society in Britain and America become more polarized, and neither country has managed to articulate a convincing, durable foreign policy strategy during this time frame.  Failure to uphold our institutions adequately and to advance inspiring ideas only stands to spawn populist politicians who become immune to criticism.Second, if we are to tackle this century's challenges reliably, we need to accept the world as it is – not as we would like it to be – and we require a more realistic assessment of our position in that world.  For the UK, this means coming to terms with the reality of migration and accepting that pooling sovereignty is the best way to manage it.  This also entails a recognition of the fact that Britain's relative power in the world has long been in decline, and therefore that it must continue its membership in the EU if it wishes to enhance its international clout.For Canada, this implies internalizing the fact that we must develop genuine partnerships with countries such as Russia and China; this is in our interest, even though many are inclined to be suspicious of their intentions.  It also means recognizing that we aren't as important as we think we are.  We have been punching below our weight internationally for nearly three decades now, and we need to develop a detailed plan that lays out how we intend to boost our international presence.With the rise of new powers from outside the Western world, we are headed toward a multicultural global order of sorts.  What values will we embody and what will our role be in this new world?  We must learn from other countries' mistakes – as well as our own – in order to answer this question, for it is one that will profoundly affect our future.Zach Paikin (@zpaikin) is pursuing a PhD in international relations at the University of Kent in Canterbury, United Kingdom.